Consumption in the United States: Colonial Times to the Cold War

Twenty-first-century Americans live in a consumer society, wherein people purchase objects and use them to define themselves and redefine relationships. Artifacts such as cars, clothing, and electronics speak to a person's ideas about self and community, conveying authority, belonging, or rebellion. The artifacts or objects around us—sometimes called material culture—give identity to young and old, male and female, married and single, black and white, telling others who we are and how we want to be treated.

Clues about the meaning of objects abound in American popular culture. Slogans like “born to shop” and “shop ‘til you drop” speak to Americans’ basic love of material life. Another adage—“the clothes make the man”—suggests that objects belong to a complex nonverbal system allowing people to communicate with each other. ...

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